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Six decades later, RCAF playing a familiar tune

Minister of Defence Tea Banh arrives at a celebration of the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces’ 63rd anniversary yesterday.
Minister of Defence Tea Banh arrives at a celebration of the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces’ 63rd anniversary yesterday. Heng Chivoan

Six decades later, RCAF playing a familiar tune

Marking the 63rd anniversary of Cambodia’s armed forces, Defence Minister Tea Banh yesterday called on troops to protect the country from “colour revolutions” and “social turmoil”, a by-now familiar refrain that may say as much about Cambodia’s military history as its political present.

Speaking at the Ministry of Defence, Banh told top military brass and officials that the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces must “work with relevant authorities to protect security, public stability, prevent social turmoil and colour revolutions and strengthen democracy”.

Though the minister said the military’s role was to protect the “legitimate government”, his evocation of internal threats to the country appeared, yet again, a thinly veiled message to political opponents of the ruling Cambodian People’s Party.

The remarks echo hostile comments made by several RCAF generals in recent months, which have been largely directed at the opposition party. But while routinely condemned, partisanship is nothing new to Cambodia’s military, with researchers recently drawing a throughline from RCAF’s birth following the country’s independence from France in 1953, to its current senior leadership, derived largely from the Vietnamese-installed regime that toppled the Khmer Rouge in 1979.

In a paper released last year, academics Paul Chambers and Kevin Nauen argued that while 1953 and 1979 mark critical junctures in changes of power over security forces, the underlying pattern of the military’s subserviance to an authoritian leader has remained largely intact.

“Cambodian militaries have tended to be much more loyal to dominant political parties (and their leaders) than to the country as a whole,” the pair write of the armed forces under then-King Norodom Sihanouk, Khmer Republic prime minister Lon Nol, Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot and current Prime Minister Hun Sen.

Today, RCAF’s senior generals hold senior positions within the ruling CPP. Banh is a CPP standing committee member, as is RCAF Commander-in-Chief Pol Saroeun and powerful RCAF Deputy Commander-in-Chief Kun Kim.

And though their party positions are well known, their recent embrace of social media has allowed the broader public to see first hand the top generals’ dual roles, particularly when it comes to contributing to CPP “working groups”, which aim to rouse popular support, largely by delivering infrastructure projects on behalf of the party.

On July 3, Kun Kim, a four-star general, uploaded pictures of himself leading a working group meeting in Oddar Meanchey, while in the same month, Pol Saroeun, backdropped by a CPP logo, addressed members of his ruling party working group in Preah Sihanouk province.

Banh, a leader in the Siem Reap provincial working group, meanwhile, uploaded pictures on his Facebook page in March of him attending the opening of a new CPP building in the province, clad in a white CPP baseball cap.

Nauen, a senior research fellow at the Cambodian Institute for Cooperation and Peace, said for senior military figures, military and party roles were likely conflated. “It’s important to recognise that the party sees itself as the defender of the nation, the saviour of the nation, so I think in their minds, there are no inconsistencies between the [military and party] roles,” Nauen said.

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